7th Circuit Rules in Favor of School District on Special Ed Teacher's Disability Discrimination Interference Claim

On September 26, 2017, the 7th Circuit affirmed an order of summary judgment in a disability discrimination lawsuit in which the plaintiff, a special education teacher, alleged that her receipt of an "unsatisfactory" rating, which resulted in her dismissal in reduction-in-force, constituted unlawful interference in violation of the Rehabilitation Act.  Frakes v. Peoria School District No. 150, No. 15-3091 (7th Cir. 9/26/2017).  The Rehabilitation Act is a federal statute analogous to the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA"), that prohibits recipients of federal funding, including public schools, from discriminating against individuals on the basis of disability.  The district court granted summary judgment for the school district on the basis that the plaintiff did not establish that she had engaged in any protected activity, which is required for an interference claim under the Rehabilitation Act.  The 7th Circuit agreed, stating that the plaintiff "...provided no evidence that she complained about or discouraged discrimination based on disability or engaged in any other activity protected by law."

In the employment discrimination context, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, including a claim for interference, is interpreted under the legal standards applied under Title I of the ADA.  Under the ADA's anti-interference provision, it is unlawful to "...coerce, intimidate, threaten, or interfere with any individual in the exercise or enjoyment of, or on account of his or her having exercised or enjoyed, or on account of his or her having aided or encouraged any other individual in the exercise or enjoyment of, any right granted or protected by the ADA."  To establish an ADA interference claim, a plaintiff must plead and prove that: (1) she engaged in protected activity under the ADA; (2) she was engaged in, or aided or encouraged others in the exercise or enjoyment of ADA protected rights; (3) the defendant coerced, threatened, intimidated, or interfered on account of her protected activity; and (4) the defendant was motivated by an intent to discriminate.  Protected activities under the ADA include opposing or complaining about disability discrimination, such as making an internal complaint of discrimination, filing a charge of discrimination with an administrative agency, or reporting a public school's failure to provide a free, appropriate public education to students with disabilities.  The plaintiff alleged that she engaged in protected activity when she refused to change her teaching methods following a negative performance evaluation.  Her argument failed, however, because there was no evidence that her opposition to the performance evaluation was an assertion of rights on behalf of her disabled students.  The 7th Circuit stated that "...the law protects assertions of rights, not teaching methods.  The fact that Frakes taught students who are protected by the ADA does not alone render her teaching 'protected activity'."  Because she failed to establish that she engaged in protected activity, her interference claim failed.